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99. The Big Picture – Michael W. Smith

THE BIG PICTURE (1986)

Michael W. Smith

It has been said here and elsewhere (and quite often) that a CCM album’s depth, quality and creativity will be inversely proportionate to its sales success. Meaning; the better the album the fewer the people that will purchase it. This appears to remain true even for CCM’s golden boy and most popular and prolific male artist, Michael W Smith.

The Big Picture, Smith’s artistic triumph remains his weakest selling album and the only album in his career not to reach even gold status. After a strong debut and the utterly forgettable argyle sock of a sophomore release (aptly titled “2”), Smith grabbed the CCM world by the throat with an album that was sonically, creatively and musically miles ahead of the rest of the Nashville pablum for the time.

From the dark purple and gold hues of the artwork to the tasteful technological advances and superior production, the Big Picture is great from start to finish. What keeps the album from falling off the tracks in a travesty of technological traps is that the songs themselves are very organic and real. Taking themes from the culture and wrapping them in modern sounds with a clear and poignant response to the baggage those theme bring along makes the album the one worthy release from Smith in the Top 100.

The album start with the ode to nihilistic escapism in “Lamu.” The once-thought fictitious paradise is actually off the Kenyan coast and serves as the backdrop for the person who hopes to escape the world and its struggles by venturing off to the furthest point they can think of. But, as the song contends, you can never escape the “One inside of you.”

The song starts with nearly a minute of musical introduction and cost the song any chance of radio reception. In fact, the entire album is filled with 5 and 6 minute musical expressions and and radio airplay nearly impossible. The heavy guitar solos and pounding electronica probably didn’t help as well.

“Wired for Sound” is the perfect example of medium meeting message. Here the electronic gadgets employed in the production of the song match the message of a world consumed by technology. This technology clouds many from seeing the truth and the song warns of this danger.Even Smiths voice is given electronic embellishment to subtly continue the message.

“Old Enough to Know,” the most “organic” sounding song on the record with limited technology. The song could have been the biggest hit from the album if it wasn’t a warning against pre0marital sex. Not that the warning was seen as a negative, but it was simply a subject CCM radio avoided like the plague. the heroine, Rebecca, is encouraged not to gibe into the pressure and Smith twists the common phrase about being old enough to have sex and uses it to declare she is old enough to know not to.

Continuing in the youth oriented themes that populate the album, “Pursuit of the Dream” is a very positive call to achieve your dreams and goals. It is also here where the album takes its name. Often in the pursuit of the dream one will miss out on the big picture and accomplishing what God wants for the individual.I recommend listening to this song (and the whole album for that matter) using headphones as there is simply a ton of “stuff” going on musically here that fills every nook and cranny of digitized tape.

The one monster hit from the album (still a rather lengthy 4:30) was the song Rocketown. The title namesake became a youth oriented hang out/nightclub for Christians soon after. The ironic thing is that in the song, Rocketown is a bar where people are looking for sex and fulfillment without Christ. The song itself is very creative for a radio single, especially given the time period. the bass line though as a bit of a mellow “Man in Motion” thing going for it. In the song there is a mysterious Christ-like character that enters Rocketown and entices a young man (Smith) to follow Him to truth. Smith’s own label would also bear the name.

The nearly 6 minute “Voices” sounds the most like Smith’s previous work with the worship like feel and classical musical landscape. Really, it sounds like a song recorded for the first two albums but was “suped up” for the Big Picture and made more musically relevant.

“The Last Letter” returns the album to the more technologically driven rock. The weakest of the songs lyrically and musically, it still sounds better than most of his later work. The lull does not last long, though, with the following “Going Thru the Motions.” This is just a great song from melody to music. It also has the biggest hook of any chorus on the album and served as a great concert song. The song decries the common complacency that sets in on many Christians who simply go through the Christian life without making a difference. In the end they are living a lie Smith exclaims.

The one 3 minute number is a rocking instrumental “Tearin’ Down the walls.” the song does just that. Great groove, killer guitar work and a ton of technological experiments jammed into three minutes.

“You’re Alright” is the most straight ahead rock and roll on the album. Guitar and drum driven with the keyboards acting in support. The song deals with maintaining a positive self-image through Christ by working on the inside rather than on the outside. This is the last song on the album other than a piano outro the closes the trip to the Big Picture.

Producer John Potoker had worked with Brian Eno, Madonna and a host of others and had a huge influence on the musical direction and big production sound. Many will obviously find the music and production technique dated, but one of this lists presuppositions was to judge albums based on the time they were recorded and what was happening musically. And for that, this album is the most “current” album of Smith’s career.

He would record about 10 more albums in a row that are completely indistinguishable from one another. But the strength here lies not in the production (or over-production) but in the strength of a songwriter album to have his songs outlast even the dated production technique.

 

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  1. Isaac
    March 31, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    6th grade. First concert. Elim Hall opened.

  2. shawnuel
    March 31, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    This is the best of MWS but…… Ish!

    • low5point
      March 31, 2011 at 6:31 pm

      Ish?

      I Still Hate? 🙂

  3. Don
    March 31, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    MWS – good album but it is still so middle of the road nicey nice pop – not something I can listen to now.

  4. shawnuel
    March 31, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Hate is a strong word. It’s funny, but Smitty hearkened back to this album quite a bit on his new one, which I actually gave a fairly positive review (stop clutching at your chest, Dave). But I just have such a hard time equating his somewhat tepid pop-rock with the “richer” forms of music that will likely populate the top 100.

  5. John
    April 1, 2011 at 12:31 am

    Even after 25 odd years this album still is great to listen to whole going down the road with the windows down even in the middle of a Canadian winter! Thank you Mr. Smith that you did not go to Washington!

  6. Greenchili
    April 1, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Funny… I just listened to this album for the first time in a while the other day..

    Smitty said the songs on the album were based off of letters he received from his fans.

    I always pictured rockettown as a modern day description of the life of Christ and how he walked among men.

    I’ve always liked the live renditions of these songs better (“Live Set”).

    I’m surprised it’s his lowest selling one.. most smith fans I know of consider it to be one of his best. Definitely a big jump from “2” which with the exception of a couple songs was a big step back.

    I’ve never had a problem (myself) with synth based albums sounding dated.. as long as the synth sounds used are full and rich.. unlike alot of poorly sampled synth sounds used by groups back in the day.

  7. Bill B
    April 1, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    MWS most rockin’ album! In the past, it has sounded a bit ‘dated’ but with the current synth/electronic sound of todays music, I will have to put it back into rotation. This album is in my Top 3 of MWS all-time.

  8. BrettC
    April 1, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Loved this album at the time of it’s release, it really hit you right in the face with it’s big sound compared to most other releases at the time.

  9. Phil W.
    April 4, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    The Live Set definitely has the best versions of these songs. I still wish they’d put the live version of Wired for Sound on it.

  10. Greenchili
    April 5, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    I liked the live version of “Wired For Sound” and “Goin’ Thru The Motions” so much I made mp3’s out of them from my Live Set VHS tape! 😀

  11. Brian
    April 6, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    For the record this is one of my most enjoyable MWS albums. Love it (save for a couple of songs towards the end of the project).

    Let it be known that Smitty himself – after making this album – went on record that this was not him, not his style and the style move he made to Go West Young Man proved his comments true. I remembered hearing these comments and thought – dude, you need to keep going in The Big Picture direction. But it was not to be.
    i still loved GWYM but The big picture was an album to stand up and take notice of.

    I still do.

    Lamu, Wired for Sound, Old Enough to Know & Rocketown still enjoy regular rotations on my CCM playlists.

    Though it was a gamble, and bit of a response to the “Micheal quite making churchy songs” crowd, the anomaly in his discography certainly was a wondrous musical event in its day.

  12. May 16, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Great album. Actually I bought this album at first for my best friend as a Christmas present. Afterwards, I have started to like it very much too and I bought it for myself too. “Wired for Sound” and “Lamu” are such great songs.

  13. Bill B
    November 19, 2011 at 7:13 pm

    This ranks in my Top 3 MWS albums along with Change Your World and Live The Life.

  14. Ecron Muss
    January 24, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Hmmmm, would have thought “Live Set” sold less than this.

    Harsh words from you for MWS 2 (“aptly titled “2”” – for shame!).

    The Big Picture seems to me to be very overproduced. The songs were ok, but buried under piles of programming, reverb, overlayered production.

    Nevertheless, the big leap of it allowed MWS to correct course and find the right equilibrium for the rest of his career.

    It has to be very tough to say to your spouse “you are no longer allowed to be my lyricist”.

    Trivia: the rented fancy jacket MWS wore for the album sleeve turned up on a James Ingram album cover a short while later.

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